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Bush's second Gulf disaster

About the author
Terry Lynn Karl is professor of political science at Stanford University.

President Bush has asked that Americans not “play politics” at this moment of terrible national disaster. But asking hard questions of our nation’s leaders is exactly what democracy demands when the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina is widely viewed as a national disgrace.

Katrina came with at least two days’ warning, but authorities waited too long to issue an evacuation order. There was no transportation for people without cars or money; there were not enough facilities to house and care for refugees, there were not forces in place to deliver desperately needed supplies or to secure order, and nowhere near the number of boats, helicopters and other craft necessary to reach the stranded.

openDemocracy writers examine the political fallout of Hurricane Katrina:

Mariano Aguirre, “The Hurricane and the Empire”

Ian Christie, “When the levee breaks”

Godfrey Hodgson, “After Katrina, a government adrift”

Rob Walker, “Regarding New Orleans”

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Hampered by a national guard with 40% of its people in Iraq, the pace of getting military personnel to the hardest hit areas was inordinately slow. For four days, there was simply no clear centre of command and control. As a result, countless people suffered and died.

Before the flood

Much of this failure is the result of Bush administration policies, which effectively eroded the capacities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), the government agency primarily responsible for dealing with disasters. Obsessed with the war on terror as well as an ideology of privatising the functions of government, the administration systematically sapped Fema’s long-term ability to prevent disaster or at least cushion the blows when prevention was not possible.

Fema was downsized and downgraded from a cabinet position, then placed under the department of homeland security. Its mission of disaster planning and preparation was dropped entirely and its focus altered to fight terrorists. Its leadership had no experience in disaster management; the past director was a Texas political crony of President Bush and the current director’s qualifications include serving as judges and stewards commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association, where he was asked to resign for “supervision failures”.

Since 2001, billions of dollars were shifted from disaster relief to homeland security and the war in Iraq. Key disaster mitigation programmes were slashed and federal funding for post-disaster relief was cut in half. The Army Corps of Engineers’ budget for levee construction in New Orleans was gutted, including funds specifically aimed at the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. Preventive measures to protect people and property were not carried out in the face of Fema’s own 2001 conclusion that a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three “likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country” (the other two were an earthquake in Los Angeles and a terrorist attack in New York).

Believing Fema to be an “oversized entitlement program” and that the “business of government is not to provide services” Bush’s first Fema director instituted new outsourcing requirements as part of a major privatisation effort. This provoked a brain-drain as experienced Fema personnel moved into the private sector.

A systemic failure

Privatisation also left poorer states and poorer communities especially vulnerable. As monies dried up and federal programmes were contracted out to private firms at higher rates, only the richest and politically most important states and communities could compete successfully for the scarce federal grants necessary to pay for services.

While Florida (with sixteen more electoral votes than Louisiana and where the president’s brother governs) received its requested funding to protect its wetlands, a more needy Louisiana (with its staggering 24% poverty rate) saw its flood mitigation funds denied in 2004. With Louisiana’s ability to protect itself weakened and the centre of disaster relief badly undermined, an inadequate government response and an increase in destruction were almost inevitable – with the poor paying the price.

The failure of this administration runs deeper than its chronic and intentional diversion of resources away from the types of policies that keep people safe from disaster. Despite scientific evidence demonstrating that the increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes are related to climate change, the Bush administration systematically rejects participation in international climate protection. Rather than continue a ban on wetlands development instituted by previous administrations, the Bush administration overturned it. Because development-provoked erosion has brought the Gulf of Mexico thirty-two kilometres closer to land than it was in 1965, hurricanes are able to retain more strength and their winds and waves pack more speed and destructive power.

Loss of wetlands threatened New Orleans’ levees, which were built on the assumption that they would have between sixty-five and eighty kilometres of protective swamp as buffer between the city and the Gulf. Despite every major study showing that a massive coastal restoration programme and higher levees were needed to protect New Orleans, the administration permitted federal agencies to stop protecting 20 million acres of wetlands, allowed developers to drain thousands of acres and cut 2004 funding for holding back the waters of Lake Pontchartrain by more than 80%.

New Orleans is America’s canary in the mineshaft. Ideologies of privatisation that incapacitate effective government, permitting the privileged to save themselves while leaving the poor clinging to roofs, must now be challenged. Because this disaster is a chilling reminder of what happens when government fails to protect its citizens, it is imperative that Americans demand accountability – not only through the firing of officials who did not do their jobs but also through the removal from office of the elected officials whose policies aggravated the devastation wrought by Katrina. We owe this to the dead and to the survivors.


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